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wesdyer

Protecting newer climbers in the gray area

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Over the years, I've found myself often taking newer climbers or would be climbers on easier or introductory trips. Of course, I absolutely love going with talented partners and doing harder climbs as fast and light as I can, but I also find it very satisfying to introduce the mountains I love to others and helping them achieve things they never thought they could.

 

I've noticed that perhaps the most dangerous part of the outing is when we are in what I call the gray area. We typically begin a climb with an approach that starts as a hike on a more or less maintained trail. Clearly, we are hiking at this point. At some later point (often indicated in guidebooks), we have all of our gear out, roped together, and are even belaying each other. Now we are clearly climbing.

 

But usually, the transition from hiking to climbing is not well defined. The trail gets rougher with possible 3rd and 4th class sections with looser rock thrown in for good measure. Or you start crossing short snow slopes that while not steep (30 degrees or so), they have questionable run-outs on harder summer snow.

 

Only recently, I've realized that it is dangerous to think of a climb as divided into four sections as it is typically laid out in guidebooks, on summitpost, or on mountainproject (and sometimes on here): non technical approach, technical climb, possibly technical descent, non technical deproach. Instead, a party should be constantly evaluating the risk at each stage for themselves and decided how to best manage it for their situation: which may mean roping up where others don't or possibly not using technical equipment where others do depending on skill and circumstance.

 

The problem with the gray area is that time is often of the essence on those parts of the trip. You need to cover a large amount of ground quickly so that you have time to do the more time consuming belayed section. I mean while it would be possible to belay from the trailhead, it would be absolutely ridiculous and take an inordinate amount of time.

 

I've rambled a bit now, but I've seen too many close calls over the years in the gray area. I'm actually considering not taking any newer climbers again (that is one way to minimize risk to them). I'd like not to make that decision.

 

So my question is what do you do to protect newer climbers in the group when you are not belaying them.

 

Do you simul climb / belay / short rope with them on 3rd/4th class?

Do you require that all climbers where helmet / harness (even if not roped up) on questionable terrain so that you can quickly rope up if necessary?

Do you insist that all climbers take traction for their foot (as well as a standard ice axe) everywhere you go since there is snow everywhere in the Cascades throughout the year?

Do you just not take them?

 

I'm looking for thoughts and experiences.

 

Thanks.

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Not specifically related to taking new climbers out, but I have noticed that many people are obsessed with removing equipment whenever it is not completely necessary for a given section. The time of taking things on and off not only adds up throughout the day, but also complicates things when you find yourself in terrain where you would like to have them and it's tricky to get them out of the pack and put them on.

 

For me, the harness and helmet usually go on at the car or camp, and stay on until I get back. If it is too warm for the helmet on the hiking approach, I leave it clipped to the outside of my pack so that I can put it on in a few seconds without removing my pack. Wearing these items also frees up space in the pack and potentially allows me to carry a smaller pack.

 

When I have brought crampons, I generally leave them on for the entire duration that I am traveling on snow where they might be necessary, unless it is plainly obvious that they will not be. Even on a long slog it is unlikely that the efficiency I would gain from moving them from my feet to my pack would outweigh the time spent stopping to change them 1 or more times. I also won't find myself on hard snow wishing I had them on.

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Personally I have simul climbed numerous times on 3rd or 4th class where my newer partner was not comfortable being unroped. Most of the time I find that this "gray area" is usually easy going for my new partner, they just aren't comfortable mentally with the terrain. I find simul climbing to work well and be a fairly quick alternative.

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Simul climbing, running belays and short roping are all good options depending on the terrain and skill/experience. But perhaps more important is judicious route selection. Pick an objective where time is not of the essence so you have some margin for moving slower over 3rd/4th terrain, and where exposed snow slopes and such are limited.

 

 

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Well if it involves steep snow....

 

Make sure you actually have anchors and belay!!!! Especially if there is any kind of lethal terrain below the slope (bergschrunds, talus, cliffs).

 

Every year we have had serious accidents in the Tetons b/c some folks think the best thing to do is either:

 

1. Self arrest if falling.

 

Or

 

2. Tie everyone together and hope the "team self arrest" works.

 

The results have been predictable.

 

As for rock, if it's fourth class, don't take any chances. Besides being safe you are making a great example of how important it is to always be safe. Teaching noobs its OK to take short cuts also has predictable results.

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Thanks for the replies.

 

It sounds like if you are with newer climbers then you definitely need to be protecting at times/places where other climbers might sneer at it (thinking of some trip reports about the Tooth or involving certain groups for example).

 

I realize that more generally my question is about protecting climbers in places where the likelihood of an accident is fairly low but the consequences are high.

 

Pick an objective where time is not of the essence so you have some margin for moving slower over 3rd/4th terrain, and where exposed snow slopes and such are limited.

 

That is a fantastic idea. If you couple that with being attentive to how they are feeling/acting and making sure they can express when they feel uncomfortable I think it could avoid many potential problems.

 

Well if it involves steep snow....

 

Make sure you actually have anchors and belay!!!! Especially if there is any kind of lethal terrain below the slope (bergschrunds, talus, cliffs).

 

I can definitely see where newer climbers get in trouble in the Tetons. Perhaps you are thinking in part about accidents on the approach to the upper saddle.

 

So you would full on belay a section of snow like the one below with a newer climber? It's the kind of snow you might find on a hike in late summer: not too steep, but steep enough to hurt with a run out onto talus.

 

DSC7970.JPG

"Steeper" snow about 100' across with a 100' runout onto talus in a creek bed

 

There a number of options available.

 

1. Walk across

2. Pull out ice axes

3. Pull out ice axes and crampons

4. Pull out ices axes, crampons, and rope up

5. Pull out ice axes, crampons, rope up, and place protection

6. Pull out ice axes, crampons, rope up, place protection, and belay

7. Go around it

8. Turn back

9. ...

 

I know it depends on the situation. But I'm just wondering how everyone would think about it...

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All of those are good options. It depends on the skill and experience of your group. This requires good judgement. There is no cookie cutter approach. The guidelines I would suggest:

 

* Err on the side of caution

* If anyone in the party asks for additional protection on a section they should not be denied or shamed

* Party members should be encouraged to ask for additional protection when they feel they need it and not be embarrassed

*As above, don't chose routes where you will be forced to take risks for the sake of speed when you are with beginners. Build some margin into your trip plan.

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Of course all situations are different, you need to have more than one trick in your bag.

 

I work in outdoor education, and I spend a fair bit of time teaching teenage boys basic mountaineering skills and taking them places. A few things come to mind.

 

Most people who teach ice-axe use don't make people practice enough. Spending significant time teaching skills can make things much safer, even if it is not as fun as actually going climbing. You want people to reach the point that you can grab them from behind and throw them down the slope and they will stop themselves (I do actually do this sometimes).

 

In a lot of snow-travel situations, the easiest way to reduce the risk is to have some skilled person go first and kick really good steps. In a lot of conditions this can make falling essentially a non-issue for those not in front.

 

Short-roping, on snow or on rock, is vastly different than normal roped travel or simul-climbing. It is a way to lend your skills to someone else. A lot of the situations you describe are probably better handled by short-roping than by simul-climbing, but it is hard to learn without going and taking several expensive classes.

 

On rock in particular, don't underestimate the value of actively coaching people through every move. This is common in outdoor education, where you take a student through some tricky section with them right in front of you the whole time. You make sure they use the best hand and foot holds and you might reach up and hold them in balance sometimes. The moral support that keeps them from getting scared is just as important as the beta you are giving them.

 

It is often best not to rely on people to tell you what they are and aren't comfortable with, but instead to set the tone of the trip that it will be out on the table the whole time. Frequently asking people how they feel about the terrain, asking them if they want a belay for the next section, and offering options are all good ways to reduce the tendency of people to not ask for protection because they are self-conscious.

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No actually many of the Tetons accidents have been on Teewinot and for some reason (hint: it's not a "hard" summit) the Middle Teton (Ellingwood Couloir being primo craterland), with one fellow even falling off the summit to his death last year.

 

If you learn to boot/axe and/or hip belay with a bowline around the waist, it's pretty quick to get across short steep snow. The plan is not to fall, so not having the harness is no big deal. This is how old timers make quick and SAFE work of snow that is eating the lunches of quite a few noobs these days.

 

(Edit: actually saved some dude's ass on Mt. Washington years ago when he froze in the middle of a chossy 4th class section, and we had him tie in quick directly to the rope with a butterfly knot, he fell shortly afterward.)

 

Especially later in the day or season, steep snow can often be too soft to allow self arrest and the softness makes it WAY easy to slip in the first place. So the condition of the snow (angle, runout and especially firmness) is the most important consideration. What was relatively safe in the a.m. may be way sketchy when recrossed in the afternoon.

Edited by Coldfinger

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Thought this was important enough to warrant its own post:

 

Keep in mind that FATIGUE is something new climbers are especially prone to and also ill-equipped to deal with.

 

Add that to HURRYING (A PRIME contributing factor to all sorts of incidents) and those two factors are usually the causes of most accidents.

 

You really have to keep a keen eye on new partners as the day goes on and be patient with them as they tend to slow down and lose focus dramatically as they tire.

 

I have thirty odd years of experience so a nasty bushwack or talus slope is something I can navigate at a pretty good clip. So it can be tempting to push a new guy to keep up. Best advice is: you slow your ass down and don't rush 'em!

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Excellent thoughts.

 

Don't chose routes where you will be forced to take risks for the sake of speed when you are with beginners. Build some margin into your trip plan.

 

I think that is right on. Although it sounds easy, I know it is tempting to choose plans that satisfy personal goals and perhaps compromise group safety.

 

In a lot of snow-travel situations, the easiest way to reduce the risk is to have some skilled person go first and kick really good steps. In a lot of conditions this can make falling essentially a non-issue for those not in front.

 

That has worked well for me too, especially when the snow isn't quite as hard and it is easier to create larger steps. Although, one of the close calls that I've seen was when we did just this and one member of the group decided they wanted to take a different route at the end and left the kicked in steps. They slipped and slide down the slope a ways.

 

And certainly, your point about practicing a lot is spot on.

 

It is often best not to rely on people to tell you what they are and aren't comfortable with, but instead to set the tone of the trip that it will be out on the table the whole time. Frequently asking people how they feel about the terrain, asking them if they want a belay for the next section, and offering options are all good ways to reduce the tendency of people to not ask for protection because they are self-conscious.

 

I really like this. I think I will try to set an atmosphere from the beginning of the trip where we actively discuss safety. You are right that people won't often volunteer their discomfort because they feel self-conscious and sometimes it is hard to gauge it internally from a more experienced point of view where your perception of the risk is entirely different. Setting the right tone and being very perceptive of how the other climbers are doing sounds like the right strategy.

 

Do you have any specific suggestions that you use to help set the proper tone? (Besides frequently inquiring and making everyone feel comfortable with taking the necessary steps to protect the group)

 

If you learn to boot/axe and/or hip belay with a bowline around the waist, it's pretty quick to get across short steep snow.

 

Although I regularly use boot axe, hip, horn, etc belays, I haven't yet tied people in on a bowline (except playing around at home). That does sound like a great way of increasing the safety without needing to get all the gear out every time you cross a small snow slope or 3rd class terrain on the approach.

 

Keep in mind that FATIGUE is something new climbers are especially prone to and also ill-equipped to deal with.

 

Add that to HURRYING (A PRIME contributing factor to all sorts of incidents) and those two factors are usually the causes of most accidents.

 

I think you are totally right. People get tired and they start getting sloppy with their foot work and feel rushed and avoid adequately managing the risk.

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Some other practical options that I have used include

 

*Ferrying a begginer's pack across a sketchy section - this helps both physically and mentally

*Linking arms to cross a sketchy section - consider it short roping without the rope. works even better to link arms with 2 confident climbers, one on each side if you are with a group

 

 

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I have introduced several friends to mountaineering. Now that you mention it, I think I try to choose objectives that minimize "gray area" (i.e. picking routes with straightforward approaches and well defined technical sections). Of course, out of all the routes out there, most do not follow this scheme, but many beginner routes seem to.

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Do you have any specific suggestions that you use to help set the proper tone? (Besides frequently inquiring and making everyone feel comfortable with taking the necessary steps to protect the group)

 

The time-tested, tried and true approach is the noobs should follow the lead of the guide/leader/experienced folks. Pay close attention and imitate. Make it absolutely clear that this is no democracy. Obey without hesitation, but feel free to ask many many questions LATER, when you all deprogram with the beverage of choice.

 

Also, that the medium (rock/ice/glacier/weather) has to be treated with complete attention and respect.

 

Beginning to climb is quite perilous, but a good dose of humility is far better than a big dose of macho/machista bs.

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As I've been thinking and researching a bit to find how to better address the risk, I've learned a few things.

 

First, the "gray area" that I was talking about is often termed the "transition zone" (and if any mods are listening, I think it would be great to change the title of my thread to reflect that). Here are a couple of quotes about that area that I think are relevant:

 

Decision making is complex in the mountains because the terrain is so varied - in difficulty, in exposure, and in medium: rock, ice, and snow. Transitions, from one medium to another or from easy to difficult ground and vice versa, entail critical choices regarding team movement, rope management, and protective strategies. The sheer amount of ground to cover introduces often-severe time constraints. -- Alpine Climbing: Techniques to take you higher by Mark Houston and Kathy Cosley

 

It is just in that seemingly harmless transition zone between flat glacial terrain, where we walk roped together, and steep ice, where we climb with fixed belays, that we find a terrain trap in which many climbers move, naively trusting their rope partner to save them in the case of a fall. - Short Roping: Questioning the safety of a traditional guiding practice by Gottlieb Braun-Elwert

 

So clearly, I'm not alone in thinking that transition zones are often where we are vulnerable especially in the context of bringing along a less experienced climber whose needs/feelings/fears we are not as in tune with as our own.

 

In fact, as I think about it more, I feel that I need to be more intentional about what I do in terrain transitions. I need to actively reevaluate what my party needs to do to be safe.

 

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I think I try to choose objectives that minimize "gray area" (i.e. picking routes with straightforward approaches and well defined technical sections). Of course, out of all the routes out there, most do not follow this scheme, but many beginner routes seem to.

 

Sounds like a great strategy. I think beginning glacier routes usually follow this pattern: Mount Hood and Mount Baker come to mind. But beginning alpine rock routes in the Cascades often do not: the Tooth and the Beckey route on Liberty Bell for example.

 

I've climbed the Tooth twice both times with another climber on his/her first alpine rock climb. Admittedly, my experience was in May/June both times so there was still significant snow on the ground. While the approach is largely straight forward there were a couple of times that we crossed very hard snow that while more or less flat had undesirable runouts into trees below. I'm thinking specifically of the traverse from the first pass around to Pineapple pass as well as the snow approach from the valley up to the basin below the Tooth.

 

As for the Beckey route, you can see my trip report from earlier this year where my friend broke his tib/fib on the deproach in the Beckey gully. No, he wasn't a new climber (I've climbed Sahale, Rainier, and many other mountains with him). Yes, I was boot axe belaying (lowering) the new climbers down the slope. But afterwards, when I talked with SAR about the climb they said that they get several calls a year just for that gully from a combination of steeper snow, loose rock, and inexperienced climbers. In fact, a friend I talked with later who is close to finishing up his Bulger 100 said that he had an incident in that same gully from a slip on snow.

 

You could also make a strong case that the standard route on Rainier, the DC, has these transition zones on the lower Cleaver and on the rock ridge before Ingraham flatts.

 

It is exactly situations like these that have got me thinking about this.

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The time-tested, tried and true approach is the noobs should follow the lead of the guide/leader/experienced folks. Pay close attention and imitate. Make it absolutely clear that this is no democracy. Obey without hesitation, but feel free to ask many many questions LATER, when you all deprogram with the beverage of choice.

 

Also, that the medium (rock/ice/glacier/weather) has to be treated with complete attention and respect.

 

Beginning to climb is quite perilous, but a good dose of humility is far better than a big dose of macho/machista bs.

 

Sounds like a nice (short) somewhat formal talk setting the ground rules isn't a bad idea.

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I think I try to choose objectives that minimize "gray area" (i.e. picking routes with straightforward approaches and well defined technical sections). Of course, out of all the routes out there, most do not follow this scheme, but many beginner routes seem to.

 

Sounds like a great strategy. I think beginning glacier routes usually follow this pattern: Mount Hood and Mount Baker come to mind. But beginning alpine rock routes in the Cascades often do not: the Tooth and the Beckey route on Liberty Bell for example.

 

You got me there. I have only introduced my friends to glacier routes, not technical, 5th class alpine rock routes. I've only done a few of those myself. But if I were to teach it someday, I would make sure my friends had the basic skills (rock climbing, steep snow and glacier) learned in a more forgiving environment (the crag, ski area, mellow glacier climb) before moving up to more technical alpine routes.

 

I think exposing newbies to a big mountain environment and getting them comfortable with exposure can (and maybe should?) be done at first with routes of a less technical nature. Then start throwing more of the technical skills in. I would be inclined to say that being comfortable in a mountain environment is more important for beginners than raw technical skills, as evidenced by gym climbers sometimes getting in over their heads when they go outside.

 

Hypothetically, by the time my neophyte climber friend is ready to go up some alpine route with me, that "gray area" 3rd/4th class scramble section should be a non-issue because they will already be comfortable soloing on that type of terrain because they've scrambled 3rd and 4th class peaks. That easy but exposed 30 degree snowslope will be OK because they are good at self arrest and comfortable on snow after our beginner glacier climbs.

 

I realize I'm probably fairly conservative. I think in the end, beginners will feel more comfortable, have more fun, and feel more accomplished and satisfied with their climbing if they learn by taking smaller steps along the way and knocking off intermediate objectives. I learned to snowboard at Mt. Baker when at age 14, my friends dropped me off at the top of chair 8 and told me they would catch up with me at the lower lodge. It worked eventually, but it probably wasn't as fun as it could have been and I ended up picking up bad habits at first. Also, I couldn't move the next day.

 

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I worked for Outward Bound for several years and we used to find that "gray area" very challenging and, indeed, probably more dangerous than than the clearly technical terrain. On many "easy" routes, there are gullies full of loose rock where you can lodge missiles at each other or where a slip could be fatal, and safely managing these can be particularly challenging with even a single newbie. They can be downright deadly with a group. On what you might call "class 3+" we would always set a fixed rope (if you have a single newbie, you might use a short rope or something), but this was not a good option for a nasty gully.

 

Somebody mentioned The Tooth as a climb that, at least in some snow conditions, has terrain that may be difficult to manage with beginners. I'd say it is a perfect example of a climb that is easy to manage in most conditions. I have taken a number of beginners up it. But I think the nearby summer routes on Chair Peak have more loose rock and treachery. I have declined to take beginners on those.

 

That gully approaching Liberty Bell is bad. It is a fantastic climb because it is LIBERTY BELL. The climb is classic and, the morning after the climb, you can go down to the viewpoint and stand for a group photo and everybody is excited (best not to do before the climb). But if you want to take a beginner up there and they have not had any prior experience with loose rock and gullies or funky snow or whatever, I'd head for S. Arete of S. Spire. If they have some rock climbing experience, take the SW Rib.

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I worked for Outward Bound for several years and we used to find that "gray area" very challenging and, indeed, probably more dangerous than than the clearly technical terrain. On many "easy" routes, there are gullies full of loose rock where you can lodge missiles at each other or where a slip could be fatal, and safely managing these can be particularly challenging with even a single newbie. They can be downright deadly with a group. On what you might call "class 3+" we would always set a fixed rope (if you have a single newbie, you might use a short rope or something), but this was not a good option for a nasty gully.

 

Thanks for sharing the experience in Outward Bound. I loved the perspective and advice.

 

Somebody mentioned The Tooth as a climb that, at least in some snow conditions, has terrain that may be difficult to manage with beginners. I'd say it is a perfect example of a climb that is easy to manage in most conditions. I have taken a number of beginners up it. But I think the nearby summer routes on Chair Peak have more loose rock and treachery. I have declined to take beginners on those.

 

Agreed. Loose rock + beginners is not a good combination.

 

What I meant about the Tooth is not that it is difficult to manage the risk but that it has risk to be managed. It should not be thought of as a hike to an out of the way multi-pitch crag even if that is how it feels me to. There are spots (especially on the traverse from the first pass to pineapple pass on harder snow) that may warrant something other than encouragement to a newer partner who is tenuously walking on snow in light hikers without an ice axe.

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I think exposing newbies to a big mountain environment and getting them comfortable with exposure can (and maybe should?) be done at first with routes of a less technical nature. Then start throwing more of the technical skills in. I would be inclined to say that being comfortable in a mountain environment is more important for beginners than raw technical skills, as evidenced by gym climbers sometimes getting in over their heads when they go outside.

 

I think you make a very good point about the importance of gaining mountain skills and I think your conservative stance has quite a bit of value.

 

Over the years, I've introduced people to mountaineering coming largely from two different backgrounds: backpacking and rock climbing. Each of them could gain valuable skills by focusing on the area they lack either cragging experience or scrambling in the mountains. Also, both groups tend to be light on snow travel experience.

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There may sometimes be a different set of goals depending whether you are trying to show your friends a good time as opposed to teaching them the skills they need for their own independent mountain adventures.

 

I've taken a number of inexperienced climbers on fixed ropes into an icefall on the lower part of a North Cascades glacier, or set a tyrolean traverse for them to crawl across, or led them up a 5 pitch rock climb with no expectation that they were going to learn anything other than that they had a good time that day. These involved significantly technical outings but they offered an exciting experience where the climb leaders had a high degree of control.

 

On the other hand, I've deliberately combined these kinds of "high impact" outings with a scree slog and a bushwack and maybe a bad gully and perhaps a navigation puzzle where the goal was to try to prepare someone for their own adventures.

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There may sometimes be a different set of goals depending whether you are trying to show your friends a good time as opposed to teaching them the skills they need for their own independent mountain adventures. I've taken a number of inexperienced climbers into an icefall on the lower part of a North Cascades glacier, or set a tyrolean traverse for them to cr, or led them up a 5 pitch rock climb with no expectation that they were going to learn anything other than that they had a good time that day.

 

Good point. Most of the time that I have taken beginners out it is to do just that - have a great time in the mountains (safely). So I guess this thread is really directed towards those kinds of adventures.

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Another follow up question is what does everyone do about self rescue in a situation with a beginning climber?

 

I know that for the vast majority of cases, I can take care of first aid, rock rescue, crevasse rescue, etc. But when I'm with newer climbers, I just try not to think too much about what would happen if I was hurt badly.

 

Recently, I've started to climb with newer climbers in group of at least 3 so that I have someone else who can do first aid or perform rescue. Any other thoughts on this?

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Another follow up question is what does everyone do about self rescue in a situation with a beginning climber?

You're f'd.

 

Recently, I've started to climb with newer climbers in group of at least 3 so that I have someone else who can do first aid or perform rescue. Any other thoughts on this?

Good idea.

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